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Crime fighters


INTERPOL secretary general, Jürgen Stock, tells Airport World more about some of the key challenges facing it today and how the organisation works with local law enforcement agencies to help combat crime at airports.

When, where and why was INTERPOL founded?

The INTERPOL story began in 1914 when police and lawyers from 24 countries met at the first International Criminal Police Congress in Monaco to discuss identification techniques and catching fugitives. After the First World War, the idea of an international police body was revived, and the International Criminal Police Commission was established in September 1923 with its headquarters in Vienna. This was the precursor to the INTERPOL of today, which with 194 member countries makes the organisation one of the world’s largest international bodies with its General Secretariat headquarters now in Lyon, France.

A secure communications network, I-24/7 (INTERPOL – 24 hours a day, seven days a week) connects police in our member countries as well as providing access to our 18 global databases, including for Stolen and Lost Travel Documents, wanted persons and forensics such as DNA and fingerprints.

What are the main challenges facing INTERPOL today?

With our membership spanning the globe, different countries and regions each have their own priorities and challenges across all crime types. However, one of the biggest problems facing law enforcement around the world is cybercrime, which is increasingly being linked to other crime areas.

What also makes this difficult for countries to investigate is that the crime can be committed anywhere in the world, from anywhere in the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into sharp relief just how quickly criminals will adapt to changing circumstances. As the virus spread, we saw a wave of criminality follow around the globe.

For example, the 2020 edition of the annual Operation Pangea co-ordinated by INTERPOL, saw new trends in the sale of counterfeit medicines, counterfeit facemasks, sub-standard hand sanitisers and unauthorised anti-viral medication.

And with financial frauds, again we have seen criminals taking advantage of the pandemic, especially as countries scrambled to purchase protective equipment for medical staff.

One sophisticated fraud scheme using compromised emails, advance-payment fraud and money laundering was as part of a case co-ordinated by INTERPOL in which German authorities were nearly duped into paying €2.4 million for masks they never received. Eventually two suspects were arrested in Nigeria.

The pandemic has also clearly affected other crime areas, especially where travel restrictions were implemented. But here again, criminals proved to be adaptive and changed their ‘business models’ for example in relation to drug crime.

In April 2020, INTERPOL issued an alert about criminal organisations using food delivery services to transport drugs and other illicit goods as countries implemented lockdowns.

People smuggling and human trafficking continue around the world, and the difficult economic situation the world now finds itself in means that we are unlikely to see any reduction in these crimes, as well as many others, in the future.

How much of these crimes happen at airports?

As regional, national or international hubs, airports are often focal points for drug trafficking, organised crime and acts of terrorism with criminal groups and terrorists using stolen travel documents to conceal their identities and cross borders undetected.

INTERPOL has developed several tools to enhance security at airports, even before a potential threat arrives at the terminal.

One example is I-Checkit, which complements and enhances national border security systems. It allows trusted partners in the private sector to submit travel document information for screening against INTERPOL’s database of stolen and lost travel documents (SLTD) which contains more than 100 million entries. A database match triggers an instant alert so the situation can be investigated.

In countries where INTERPOL’s network is accessible at airports, with just one swipe a passport can instantly be checked against both national and INTERPOL databases.

When officials have just moments to decide whether or not to allow a person into their country, time is of the essence, and with search results against INTERPOL’s SLTD database returned in less than half a second, this is a vital policing tool.

However, in addition to these ‘physical’ crimes there is also the cyber threat, where critical infrastructure such as airports are a key target. Criminals will always target the weakest point of any chain. This can mean identifying an official who can be corrupted or sending phishing emails containing ransomware which can be opened by staff not fully trained in identifying this type of cyber threat.

Just as airports can often be viewed as small cities, so too do they face the same crime threats as any other city in the world.

Does having a number of law enforcement agencies doing different jobs at airports complicate matters?

Each of the different agencies working in airports has their own area of expertise and responsibility. They do however, all share a common goal: Keeping passengers safe, and detecting and preventing illegal activity. The key is ensuring that these come together seamlessly.

INTERPOL has helped co-ordinate a wide range of operations at airports including combatting human trafficking, drug smuggling and trafficking in illicit goods involving various different agencies.

We have seen significant results in identifying criminals and fugitives, especially when the operations have involved direct access to INTERPOL’s global databases.

Strong security measures are essential at airports, which is why it is vital that all involved agencies work together, share information and can access INTERPOL’s global network and databases to help identify fugitives, criminal activities and intercept illicit goods.

This was one of the drivers behind the creation of the Airport Communication Project (AIRCOP), a multi-agency initiative by INTERPOL, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the World Customs Organization (WCO) in 2010.

The project aims to strengthen the capacities of international airports across the globe to detect and intercept drugs, other illicit goods and high-risk passengers, including foreign terrorist fighters, in origin, transit and destination countries.

Since its launch, co-ordinated operations around the world have resulted in a significant number of seizures and arrests as well as rescuing victims of human trafficking.

Has new technology aided crime prevention for law enforcement agencies but also made it easier for criminals to commit offences?

Technology improvements have impacted on crime rates over the years. For example, a drop in car thefts due to the increased use of vehicle immobilisers and a reduction in burglaries as intruder alarms have become more sophisticated.

However, at the same time we have seen the use of new technologies quickly embraced by criminals and organised crime networks. Unfortunately, it is challenging for law enforcement to adapt as quickly, often due to funding or regulatory issues.

What is clear is that criminals do not have the same constraints as the police. This is particularly true in the cyber domain where public and private sector co-operation is needed to tackle these threats. The expertise in identifying cyber-attacks comes primarily from the private sector which also develops the necessary tools to protect the online community from harm.

This is why is it essential for law enforcement to remain innovative, especially when facing a lack of resources, to ensure that we can at least try to keep pace with the criminals or identify threats before they become a reality.

Do you believe in passenger profiling, or perhaps to put it in a more acceptable way, behavioural analysis when it comes to security and crime prevention?

Each country has their own data protection laws and protocols when it comes to security and crime prevention and national sovereignty is one of the main principles of INTERPOL’s constitution.

Airports are high-volume, high-stress environments where security staff need to make appropriate assessments of risk. INTERPOL provides the means of exchanging intelligence on particular criminal methodologies and trends in order to assist countries in developing their threat and risk assessments.

This is why Advanced Passenger Information/Passenger Name Recognition is a vital part of effective security in air travel.

Would law enforcement agencies ever get involved in dealing with situations such as the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic?

Law enforcement has been playing a key role in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic from the very beginning of the outbreak and is often the first line of defence for the community it serves.

Officers have been on the streets helping to implement the measures to keep us safe, often at the expense of their own health. In my discussions with police chiefs over the past year, I have been saddened to hear about the number of officers all over the world who have been victims of COVID-19.

This role continues to evolve, which has now expanded to include assisting with the safe and secure delivery of vaccines as they are being rolled out around the world.

Can environments like an airport ever have 100% security?

Unfortunately, history has shown us that no environment can be 100% secure. What we can do is work to minimise risks. A vital part of that is ensuring that police and other law enforcement officials have access to information when and where it is needed, and clearly airports are on the frontline when it comes to identifying criminals and fugitives.

Here, INTERPOL’s Stolen and Lost Travel Documents database plays a critical role. Officers with direct access to the database can instantly verify whether the person standing in front of them is using a fraudulent travel document and further checks should be made.

Who is your favourite TV detective and do you have a favourite airport and why?

My favourite detective on TV is Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and my favourite airport is Lyon-Saint Exupéry, for two reasons. First, because it is the place of departure for when I go on mission to visit a member country to see the work of police in our member countries at first hand, which is always a great pleasure and honour. And secondly, because when I return to Saint Exupéry I know that I will soon be back with my family.

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